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The ministry of women

Regardless of gender or religion, ministry is as individual as fingerprints. The way women minister to congregants will always differ to how a man would do it, as ministry inevitably varies from person to person.

Women’s ordination has made a mark in a number of faiths and the stories of women’s experiences are telling. For some faiths, the ordination of women is relatively new. For others, it’s the norm. Certainly the experience for women in this type of leadership can be difficult. However as some women attest, it can also be liberating.

The Uniting Church in Australia has ordained women since its formation in 1977. The Salvation Army has always had women in its ranks. When Anglican church law changed in 1992, women were ordained to the priesthood in dioceses that agreed with ordination, but it’s likely to be some time before Australian Anglican law changes, enabling women to become bishops. The Jewish faith is also divided on the issue: Progressive Judaism allows female ordination while Orthodox Judaism strongly opposes the practice. The stories of women from these faiths are challenging, spirited and give a new dimension to ministry.

Rev Maree Armstrong

While studying to become an Anglican priest, Maree—a mother of three—found herself working through the basic issues. She attended a theological college that only had men’s toilets.

‘There was one other woman who studied with me, we used to take turns standing toilet guard’, she says.

Or there were times when praying in church with the other male students was excruciating. ‘They went on for so long sometimes I’d be thinking: “Come on, I’ve got washing to get off the line”,’ she says, laughing.

While funny, such situations only hint at the political issues women face in ministry. When Maree began in ministry, there was no female model to follow. She felt she had to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and still works up to 80 hours a week. ‘The one time I took a day off because I’d been ill’, she says, ‘someone had the gall to ask: “Is it a bit much for you dear?” I was very hurt’.

Maree, now 50, was in the first group of Anglican women to be ordained to priesthood in NSW in 1992. Initially she tried to be demure and dressed conservatively, otherwise no one believed she was a priest. But one day she thought, ‘blow, I’m just going to be who I am’.

Sometimes she dyes her hair purple for special occasions, but mostly it’s vibrant red. These days she denotes her position by wearing collar crosses, but keeps a collar in her handbag for emergencies—a prop she regularly lends her grandson for dress-ups.

‘I still wear my collar when I go into hospitals. Although most of them know me now, it can be difficult to get into intensive care without it … a man would never have that problem.’

She says the residents of the nursing homes she visits have come to accept her, but will still ask for ‘that nice young man’, her assistant. And the parish priest who preceded her? He had people offering to do his washing and ironing for him; an offer Maree has never received.

‘I laugh it off these days and have come to realise I minister completely differently to a man, not that it’s better or worse, just different. I’m open with my congregation; I simply offer myself because when you’re vulnerable, people become vulnerable with you. This has two sides to it, of course. You get to know people well, but it also means you can get hurt because your underbelly is showing. I think men tend to protect themselves from that.’

Maree’s husband, Terry Armstrong, has always shared the household duties, and actively encouraged Maree. And despite their precarious financial position while Maree was still in training—Terry lost his fingers in a mining accident—Terry continued his support, as did their daughter and two sons who were children at the time.

Maree is currently the rector at Belmont North/Redhead parish in the Newcastle diocese. When she started there two years ago, the parish had a small community of regulars. Sundays are now a family affair attracting up to 50, with noisy children and squawking babies not seeming to faze anyone. The parishioners say they love their priest with the spiky red hair, funky glasses and acrylic nails, whose sermons are always personal and invariably funny.

‘I think that even clergy who once opposed female ordination are finally coming around’, says Maree. ‘They’ve seen that it has not been the end of civilisation as we know it; we work hard and parishes are growing’.

‘I feel saddened that people think [Archbishop] Peter Jensen’s views are what Christianity is all about … to be so black and white about things. I know I’m not a scholar like him but I just don’t know a God like that.’

Rabbi Aviva Kipen

Rabbi Kipen once spoke at a public forum about Judaism during which the orthodox rabbi she admired as a youth spent his allocated time seeking to discredit Progressive Judaism—the stream that allowed her to become a rabbi. ‘It was such a cheap shot and so disappointing’, she says. ‘The only way I could respond was to oblige him to take credit for the fact that, if I’ve not been sucked into anything foolish, it’s because my Judaism inspires me to behave properly, and I learned that from people like him.’

Aviva Kipen, 51, was the first Australian woman to receive rabbinic ordination in the Progressive (also known as Reform or Liberal) stream of Judaism in London in 1991, and is one of three female rabbis in Australia. She is an imposing woman who expresses herself with expansive arm gestures, has been known to blow kisses to members of her congregation during a service and, at her own admission, is an inveterate talker. ‘The problem is to shut me up’, she says. When Bentleigh Progressive Synagogue invited her to become their rabbi in 2001, she believes it was who she was, that was up for consideration, not her gender.

‘I had a whole lot of life experiences that made me a much more approachable person than a stereotypically male, bearded rabbi fresh from rabbinical school. So, in fact, I did not find much resistance because of my gender.’

As a teenager, Kipen did not do well at school, didn’t matriculate and felt she was branded as being quite odd. ‘There were rays of pleasure in my teenage years that had nothing to do with school,’ she says. ‘I loved singing and joined the choir at St Kilda Synagogue, partly also to perve at the good-looking boys. When everyone else went out for a fag during the sermon I would stay and listen to Rabbi Lubofski, an electrifying preacher, who nourished my love of Judaism and made it possible, even for the occasional girl, to get some serious scholarship and engage with Jewish issues.’

Had she been a man, Kipen says she would have attended rabbinical school by the time she was 25, but there simply weren’t any women rabbis at that time. So instead, she became a primary school teacher, married—but is now divorced and single—had a daughter and moved overseas, much to the consternation of friends and relatives.

‘I think everyone expected I would stay exactly as I was. Thankfully all that went out the door with my generation. I left teaching, trained as an adult trainer in industry, returned to teaching so I’d have enough time to do an Arts degree at night, went to rabbinical school and then returned to Australia 17 years later as a trained and experienced rabbi, ready to work in a completely new way, in a new identity, in a new moment of history where women were able to do that.’

Working at Bentleigh Progressive Synagogue takes up about one and a half days of Kipen’s week, but her diary looks like a coloured maze with numerous commitments. She is a PhD candidate at Monash University, works at the Education Department credentialing teachers in religious instruction from non-Jewish and non-Christian religions, and received a Centenary Medal for her work with multi-cultural communities. Kipen has worked for the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria helping design large, public religious events to mark the centenary of Federation and September 11, and has conducted 36 funerals this year—only two of which were for synagogue members.

‘The work I do with other communities is also Jewish work. It may not appear in the vocabulary of someone from an orthodox position, but in my understanding of what it means to be a “mensch” [an honourable person]—which is totally formulated on the basis of what I understand Judaism to be—I cannot be an Australian, I cannot be a woman, I cannot be a mother, I cannot be a teacher, I cannot find a way of separating those identities from my Judaism.’

Rev Sue Gormann ‘I didn’t have a religious upbringing and when I was 14 I thought the church was rubbish. At 16 or 17 I was even antagonistic.’

Not any more. In September 2003, Sue Gormann was inducted as Moderator of the Uniting Church, Victoria and Tasmania, as the church’s spiritual head in both states, and at 43 is the youngest person in Australia to take on the appointment.

‘The position comes with a lot of responsibility’, she says. ‘And it’s really quite overwhelming because there aren’t many positions where you are voted in by 500 people and have to get 66 per cent of the vote’.
Sue was previously the Chaplain at Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne and recently gave the sermon at an MLC ceremony in the Melbourne Town Hall. She began her sermon with a story about new communication technologies—her excitement at receiving emails and text messages—which created an instant rapport with the young women in the audience. ‘It’s a knack she has’, said a teacher. ‘People are drawn to her’.

So, what brought about her dramatic shift in attitude to the church? It wasn’t until her late teens, she says, after being introduced to the Uniting Church by friends and experiencing the effect of ‘authentic relationships’.

‘I listened to Gospel stories and heard how God was seen in the life of Jesus. Jesus became this radical life choice that cut across politics … everything. It must have been a powerful change in my thinking because all my family came with me after that. Three of us are now ministers.’

Even though the Uniting Church has ordained women since amalgamation in 1977, Sue feels that women still have a challenging time in traditionally male roles. She has to continually remind herself that only 35 years ago women didn’t receive equal pay and had to resign from work when they had a baby.

Throughout her religious career, Sue has combined work with motherhood, but has also taken time out to devote herself to parenting her two children. Her advice to other women in ministry is to ‘keep your hand in’ when children are small, but not to be too hard on yourself either—enjoy the different stages of life.

‘At this stage of my life I feel that anything is possible. But I might not have felt that way six years ago when my children were younger. I think women need to listen to those needs and give themselves a break.’     

Annette Binger is a freelance writer, living in Melbourne and currently working on a novel for young adults. Photo by Pru Taylor.



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